Sunday, March 28, 2021

Early Garden

In between rain storms and cold snaps this week, I've managed to spend some time outdoors working on our trees and garden. It's really my wife that has the green thumb when it comes to planting, but I can generally be trusted to pull weeds, spread mulch, and show a little love to our first crop of volunteers.

Although it's only March, there's a surprising amount of growth. For instance, we already have four lettuce plants. True, two of them decided to grow in the mulched paths instead of the beds, but that's just a sign that they're hearty. When they get a bit bigger, and can tolerate the disruption, we'll transplant them to a more nutritious soil.

The kale is also going gangbusters. This may be the first year we've had our curly kale survive the winter, and now that the worst of the cold seems to be over they're sprouting fresh green all up and down their three-foot stalks. If it continues like this we'll be up to our eyes in the stuff by the end of April, which is fine by me. Especially now that I've got a good recipe for kale-and-potato soup.

What else? There's chamomile that has sprouted, and lots of fresh dill. (The dill is not especially surprising -- it's so popular with monarch caterpillars that we let it go to seed every year, and as a result it tends to get everywhere.) The chives are looking very healthy, and we've already picked and chopped some of those. A couple weeks ago I noticed a cilantro plant had popped up, and now there are two of them, jockeying for space among the first dandelions.

Our yellow daffodils are also in full bloom, and we're not the only ones who appreciate that. Yesterday I watched a bumble bee get all loopy on pollen as it crawled halfway inside one of the flowers. Soon we'll have more of both the flowers and bees.

As for the weeding, I've kept up the best that I can, but there's always more to be done. Top priority this year was the ground around our two peach trees, which had become a dense knot of violet roots. I spent a long time digging them up this week, first one root at a time and then finally by skimming off a couple inches of dirt just to try and get everything. Even after all that, when I went to lay down newspaper and garden fabric I kept finding violet roots the size of my thumb. I pulled what I could, but their message was clear: This isn't over.

My dad used to say that if dandelions were difficult to grow they'd be in everyone's gardens. The same could be said about these violets. They have lovely, colorful flowers that all bloom at once, and the effect can be very nice. The only problem is, much like dandelions, if you give them an inch they'll take over. By the time I finally dealt with them they'd crowded out everything but the thistle, and that isn't much of a bargain. I don't want to spend the summer wading through violets and thistle every time I go to check on the trees.

Every year, these things seem to start sooner. Already it feels like the garden has sprung fully alive, but the last frost date isn't until April 25. I try to keep that in mind. There's still nearly a month for a freeze to set in and kill off those early-rising volunteers. In the meantime, however, I think it's best to encourage them.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Down the Hatch

Like a lot of people, I've been doing some soul searching lately. 2020 was tough. On the world stage was the pandemic, and on a much smaller stage was my father going through end-stage dementia. That the two would intersect so neatly – Dad's paranoid delusions taking hold just as the country locked down in March – really tells you something about the universe's sense of humor. But nothing reassuring.

Everybody knows what 2020 was like, and a lot of people lost a lot more than I did. It's strange to write about, or talk about, because it all feels like a given. What could anyone have to say that everybody else doesn't already know?

But like Christian Bauman says, it fades, man, it fades.

I didn't expect to read anything about the pandemic that would jarringly remind me how last year felt, because I didn't see how I could have forgotten. But then I read this article in Fast Company and I got that eerie feeling, you know the one. Like you're remembering a dream you had just before it happens in real life. Deja reve.

It was this, of all things, that really slugged me:

"You look like garbage. You may have let yourself go long enough. You buy a video game designed for exercise. You wake up every day and do competitive aerobics on a TV inside your apartment in the city you now live in. You feel like a pet hamster, a lab rat. You feel like Demond on Lost, stuck in the hatch, pushing a button over and over again to keep the world outside from being destroyed. You may have watched too much TV."

 

Desmond and Locke in an underground bunker from the ABC drama "Lost"
"But the good news is I've started a blog."

Desmond. Yep, I remember that phone call in April last year, asking somebody if they remembered Desmond. I'd just finished setting up a space in the basement to exercise, and another space in the basement to work. Our home had become our hatch, and suddenly every square foot was under scrutiny. What part of our lives could move in to this hundred square feet? What part of the outside world could we pull under our roof?

But now, a year on, these accommodations are a part of everyday life. Of course I work out in the basement. Of course I come down here to write. Why would it be any different?

Well, because at some point you have to come back up. Desmond has to leave the hatch. And I've been reminded this week – as I finished reading the Tao Te Ching and set it with Man's Search for Meaning, On the Shortness of Life, Writing in the Dark, and other books a little too on-the-nose for this moment that I've turned to nonetheless – I've been reminded this week of what Sheila Heti said in her essay Why Go Out? 

I'm going to spoil the ending now. I'm sorry about that, but her conclusion dovetails so perfectly with something Derek Lin said in his annotations of the Tao Te Ching, which is that philosophy doesn't matter unless we take it back with us into the world. Just something to keep in mind as we begin this next phase of reemergence, as we move from one kind of anxiety into another:

“I'm always super-aware of how whenever I got out into the world, or whenever I get involved in a relationship, my idea of who I think I am utterly collides with the reality of who I actually am. And I continue to go out even though who I am always comes up short. I always prove myself to be less generous, less charming, less considerate, not as bold or energetic or intelligent or courageous as I imagined in my solitude. And I'm always being insulted, or snubbed, or disappointed.

And yet, in some way, maybe this is better. Each of us could suffer the pangs of withdrawal from other people and gain the serenity of the non-smoker. We could be demi-gods in our little castles, all alone, but perhaps, deep down, none of us really wants that. Maybe the only cure for self-confidence and courage is humility. Maybe we go out in order to fall short, because we want to learn how to be good at being people, and moreover, because we want to be people.”


Sunday, March 14, 2021

Wu Wei

For the last couple weeks I've been reading Derek Lin's translation of the Tao Te Ching. I'm not exactly zipping through it. I'll read two or three pages at a time, then kind of sit and stare into space and think about things for a while. There's a lot to think about.

Headshot of Derek Lin, facing camera, in a black shirt and suit jacket
Derek Lin

One of the things I like about Lin's translation so much are the heavy annotations. Sometimes they'll be twice as long as the chapter, breaking it down line by line and giving some necessary context. One of his notes this week Arabbed my attention and helped me straighten a few things out. It was a note on Chapter 48, which goes like this:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss

Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action*
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do

Take the world by constantly applying noninterference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

 Lin's note (one of many, but the only one I'm copying here) was this:

*The principle of wu wei is very powerful. By focusing on the process instead of the end result, we allow things to progress naturally and minimize our tendency to meddle. The net effect is that the difficult becomes easy, and we struggle less but accomplish more.

I don't know if that does anything for you. What rattled my cage may only strike you as a piece of gentle advice. The thing is, I've been questioning my own writing process these last few weeks. Not the writing so much as the not writing. I've had a hard time letting myself just sit and think about the story I'm telling, what I want to say, and how I want to say it.

At the start of this year I said I wanted to focus on “productivity,” in the sense that I want to write a lot of bad shit to make sure I write more good shit. And that goal hasn't changed—I'm still with Ted Orland on this one.

But all that focus on the end result means I've spent the last ten weeks pushing to hit word counts. It means if I have an hour to write, then by god I'm going to spend that whole hour typing. What I've lost in all this is the process. I've given up the time that I should spend in thought.

It doesn't help I'm at home all day. Gone are the morning commutes, the walks to the office, the trips to get coffee. I underestimated how necessary a part of the process it is to spend time being idle and bored. I've focused on typing at the expense of just thinking, even though they're both part of writing.

So what's a guy to do? Stop focusing on the end result; stop looking at the word count as the benchmark of success. I need to accept that sometimes staring at the wall is work that's just as valid as typing. Because it's not just about the result of a stack of typed pages. It's about the process it takes to get there.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Cultivation

 A few things this week. First, certainty.

Very little in my life has been as constant as the certainty I feel when I write. It bubbles up in the process of writing every story, whether it's six words or six thousand. At some point—maybe multiple points—I will stare at the page I'm working on and know, with absolute conviction, that it's dog shit.

When you know you're writing garbage, it's tempting to set it aside and start on something else. It is much harder to recognize that what feels like certainty is in fact the same resistance you've felt before. Certainty means knowing that this time it's different; this time your gut is correct; this time you're working on garbage.

In these moments, a valuable practice for a writer is the cultivation of doubt. This does seem bad, doesn't it? But let's just see where it goes. Let's write to the end to be sure.


*


I've been reading Will Cuppy's How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes. Cuppy was a humorist maybe most famous for his book of history, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, but he spent much of his time researching and writing about nature. Most of the pieces in Apes are only a page or two long, which is kind of a shame, since Cuppy's humor really works best when he's got room for asides and diversions, like in his essay What I Hate About Spring:

“More than one psychologist has hinted that there must be something amiss with a bookish old recluse who does not enjoy the combined yawpings and yowling and yammerings of the entire brute creation while he is trying to get some plain and fancy writing done. I reply that there must be something wrong, and radically wrong, with a lot of birds who cannot let a poor hack have five minutes of peace in which to grind out his copy.

I advise pedants to skip my classification of bird noises. I find that most birds, if left to their own devices, are likely to go zeegle zeegle zeegle. There is also the bloop type, and I may as well mention the phut phut and willuch willuch varieties—see the text of my articles for the details.

Or, one may divide the avifauna of Jones's [Island] into those that sound like scraping a blackboard with chalk, those that resemble the sound of blowing into a bunghole, and those that remind the hearer of delicate steel gimlets boring remorselessly into the more sensitive tissues of the human brain. Another bird which I should love to get my hands on emits a circular whiz guaranteed to turn a cave-man into an incurable neurotic in five minutes of steady application. Perhaps I may be pardoned for regarding the Jones's Island Whizzer as a menace to American letters.”


*


I've also been reading Derek Lin's excellent translation of/commentary on the Tao Te Ching. According to the sticker on the cover I bought this book fourteen years ago, which means I've tried and failed to read it off and on for the last decade and a half. This month, I guess I was ready.

It's always a mystery why and when certain books finally click. I'm still stymied by Marcus Aurelius, which is slightly embarrassing to admit, since Meditations is usually regarded as a pretty accessible point of entry for Stoicism in particular and philosophy in general. It's like saying I'm stymied by Aesop's Fables. 

Periodically I'll read an Aurelius quote that seems straightforward enough. Something like: “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”

I'll read that and think, Well that doesn't seem so difficult. Maybe I should try it again? But a few pages on I'll find myself stumped and set Meditations  aside.

This is why I have so much trouble getting rid of books. Maybe I didn't like it, maybe I couldn't get into it, but it hardly seems fair to blame that on the book. Maybe I just need to grow into it. If I carry it with me for the next fourteen years, who's to say what might happen?


*


And, finally, I pruned up our peach trees this week. They were badly in need of a trim, not least because they were stretching out over the neighbor's front yard and dropping stones in their lawn. 

This will be the sixth year we've had the trees, and in that time I think we've harvested perhaps twelve ounces of edible fruit. It's the pests. Every year they beat us to the punch, eating the peaches well before we can, and it's never the same pests twice. 

The first year it was the squirrels. The second year it was a ground hog, which our neighbors swore they saw leap from the tree multiple times despite being as large and as round as a pot-bellied pig. In year three we had bees. Year four was the stink bugs. And last year the peaches were covered in wasps, which were frankly much worse than the bees. The bees at least seemed to respect each other and take turns nibbling. The wasps treated it like a free for all, swarming the fruits fifteen at a time whether they were still on the tree or the ground.

My wife is an organic gardener, which rules out most of the defenses other gardeners might use, but last year we had a terrific jalapeno harvest. I diced most of them up for pickling, and as we've eaten our way through the jar I've been saving the juice to spray on our trees. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but I say let's just see where this goes.

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle...